28. July 2021

Off the beaten path of teaching Corona: A ‘digital semester’ of new possibilities

A ‘digital semester’ of new possibilities

Face-to-face versus lockdown: a tension affecting day-to-day academic life at the University of Bonn for well over a year now. “We had to abruptly switch modes and take all formerly face-to-face events digital,” recalls Professor Karin Holm-Müller, who was Vice Rector for Teaching and Student Affairs until May of this year. “It is rare indeed to see one’s everyday reality so dramatically altered in such a short time. It has demanded incredible effort for everyone at the University.” An article from forsch 2021/01.

Doctoral student Lotta Schencking created a digital escape room for the students.
Doctoral student Lotta Schencking created a digital escape room for the students. - Doctoral student Lotta Schencking created a digital escape room for the students. © V. Lannert
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Breaking with established ways and taking new departures, getting to know unfamiliar technologies ... this and more has been required of instructors ever since the pandemic erupted, who had but little time to create online versions of existing course offerings. “We definitely encountered some issues early on,” Holm-Müller admits, “but I remain impressed with the energy and dedication my colleagues displayed in surmounting the challenges.” The task was particularly hard given that certain events are of a nature that almost by definition requires physical presence to a degree, like internships at University labs. It took the state government until the start of this year to approve a few exceptional cases to the regulations in which face-to-face interaction is permitted under strict precautionary conditions, but this move was by no means adequate to accommodate the large number of students who need to take such seminars.

Lab internships in lockdown

The situation motivated Dr. Christina Kopp, nutritional physiologist at the Institute of Nutritional and Food Sciences within the Faculty of Agriculture, to try something new. “It is unthinkable that we would have students doing our master’s degree in nutritional science not completing lab internships. And yet in the winter semester we were barred from offering any face-to-face internships.”

Thus Dr. Kopp developed a course cleverly entitled Practically Impossible: The Digital Lab Internship offered within the framework of the NRW state certificate program Professional Teaching Competency for the University Level, in which she and other University teaching staff were involved. “It was important to us to have an online lab internship take place precisely the same way as a regular one, just without the students actually being there.” Relying on video technology, Dr. Kopp and her colleagues first filmed every step of the way for interning students, starting with experiment setup and continuing throughout the conducting process. “We generated more than ten hours of uncut video material in filming for the ten course topics,” Kopp relates. The students watched the videos and were then able to talk with the technical staff of the Institute via videoconference to ask questions on details regarding experiment setup and the equipment utilized. They then were given values from the experiments conducted which they had to evaluate in online groups, preparing corresponding experiment documentation. The session was bookended by a traditional internship pre-test and post-test respectively, taken on eCampus, the online course platform, which enabled the internship course instructors to verify attainment of the learning objectives.

“A digital lab internship of course is not the same experience as actually working in a real lab, wearing your lab coat, goggles and gloves,” Kopp observes, but notes that student course evaluations were positive. “Taking lab internships online avoided students having to tolerate an indefinite extension of their studies. so we were really motivated to come through for them.

Escape room science

Doctoral student Lotta Schencking, working at the Institute of Household Technology and Process Engineering within the Faculty of Agriculture, has an innovative idea for dealing with the situation. “You can certainly teach about doing scientific work off a manuscript in a video conference, but it’s considerably more difficult to motivate students to collaborate that way,” she comments, explaining how the situation convinced her how important it is to ensure that diverse teaching methods are employed. “That’s how my idea of a digital escape room was born.”

In an Escape Room adventure, a group of people have themselves locked into a set of rooms that are typically lavishly styled in a certain way. They have to solve various tricky puzzles in order to “escape” within a set amount of time. The same thing is possible in digital version. “Diving into a new world is exciting and motivates students rather effectively to engage in problem solving,” explains Schencking, whose modified online Escape Room adventure takes place in a dark and creepy abandoned hospital. Students move through various decaying rooms by solving puzzles that are about the learning content of the lecture and seminar concerned. “The adventure setting is a vehicle for transporting a different kind of learning experience, allowing students to approach content in a new and highly engaging way.” Schenking’s virtual escape room is on eCampus, where there is a separate folder for each escape puzzle containing the images that transport the atmospheric settings inside the fictional sanatorium. “When one task is completed the next folder is activated so that the image of the next room appears with its own learning content and associated task,” as Schencking elucidates, “Once students have acquired all the learning content they make it to the last folder, so they see a sunrise indicating they have managed to escape from that creepy place.” And there is a certificate they can print out documenting their successful completion.

The bottom line: greater effort required
The two scientists agree that digital course formats require much greater effort, and as Schencking points out, “for some lectures they are just not a good option”. Yet positive student evaluations have shown that her own efforts were worthwhile, she is pleased to report, with the pandemic as catalyst for getting off the beaten path to come up with some trailblazing teaching concepts.

Dr. Kopp is already thinking about her next steps: “We have already agreed that we want to keep offering certain digital courses after the pandemic resolves.” While making new videos every semester involves too much work, she notes, “we do however know how to go about it now, so we will be able to produce them much faster going forward.” The experience gained in this area will definitely be of future teaching benefit, be it face-to-face or in a lockdown situation.



Videos for digital teaching
Videos for digital teaching - Dr. Christina Kopp and her colleagues used video technology for digital teaching. © V. Lannert
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